Originally posted July 9, 2009
"I'm bored, Mom. I have nothing to do," Noah sighed one afternoon. It was, after all, too cool to swim at the quarry.
"If you're absolutely certain that you cannot come up with anything to do, surely I can think of something," I winked, as I merrily conjured a list of chores and Noah made himself scarce.
A volunteer at the Garfield Farm Museum, an 1840's living history farm in LaFox, emphasized that parents of that era would never have heard a child complain - as mine are wont to do, a few short weeks into summer - that they are at wits' end with nothing to do.
"He'd have been pretty premium," the volunteer added, gesturing toward Noah, who stood a tad taller until she elaborated. "Children chopped wood, churned butter, fed the animals, and carried wood, scrubbed laundry …"
Chagrined, Noah took a step back and leaned against me. "Don't get any ideas, Mom," he whispered.
Oh, but I did.
During last month's '1840's Days' at Garfield Farm, which was populated with volunteers in period dress, my kids learned that breakfast in those days was a tad more complicated than deciding which box of cereal to open or placing their order at Mommy's smoothie bar. In fact, first they had to gather the eggs, and unless someone laid the fire before the crack of dawn - with wood the children often split and hauled - the stove wasn't ready for Mom to bake the breakfast biscuits.
Farm kids back in those days probably didn't earn a weekly allowance just for breathing.
The Garfield kids and those raised on other Chicagoland farms - including the Kline Creek farm in Winfield, another 19th century living history museum and a popular stop on this mom's 'see-how-good-you've-got-it' tour - got to eat as a direct consequence of doing their daily chores. No firewood in the box? No breakfast.
Another eye-opener for my kids was learning other realities of 19th century farm life. For example, the second leading cause of death for women then, after childbirth, was death by incineration. A spark from the hearth could ignite on a woman's billowing skirts. Even if she survived the initial injury, infection from the wounds might eventually do her in.
The fund of knowledge each Garfield Farm volunteer possessed was nothing short of impressive.
Another, who showed us the Garfield family photos displayed in the 1836 tavern the family ran as an inn, shed some light on the mystery of the stern faces often seen in early photographs. The picture-taking process was quite different in the 19th century, and folks often had to pose for more than 30 minutes, which could become quite uncomfortable, hence the long faces.
Kind of like the ones I get when I ask my children to take out the trash.
Did farm kids living during the 1800's give their parents any guff about doing their chores?
Probably. Kids are kids, after all.
As for trash, I'm guessing there was less of it back then.
The old adage 'waste not want not' was taken seriously in those days, and, according to the Garfield volunteer who introduced us to 19th century games, children knew how to make checkers for the board game (which in those days was called 'draughts') from round slices of dried corn-cobs.
So it wasn't all work and no play for farm children, after all.
But chores were a given. At the farm my kids learned how to dip candles (in animal fat) and Holly grated lye soap (made from more animal fat and wood ash) into the laundry tub before scrubbing a shirt with an old washboard.
"That was my favorite part," she said.
I'll have to keep that in mind. You know, in case she's ever bored.
My favorite part of our visit was our tour of the '1842 barn,' where volunteer John Wolcott showed us how to shell corn for chicken feed and enlightened us with a tale about how farm folks sometimes turned tedious chores into entertainment. As the story goes, young people would divide up into teams, frantically husking ears of corn in order to shell them. The guy who ended up with the occasional red ear of corn won the right to kiss the woman of his choice.
More farm fun for everyone.
But I found the whole process of harvesting, flailing and winnowing wheat especially fascinating.
"Take it like a golf club and swing it," John said, as he illustrated how to use a scythe for harvesting wheat. Once harvested, shocks of wheat were flailed (thrashed, to separate the wheat from the hay) and then winnowed. Winnowing appeals to me as such a logical and almost lovely process, whereby wheat is tossed from a basket (or winnowing fan) into the air, and a slight breeze coursing through the barn's open doors can blow the light chaff away from the heavier grain, which then falls back into the fan. I don't suppose John considers himself a graceful man, but he made winnowing look like a dance of sorts.
We were mesmerized.
Noah tasted a kernel of freshly winnowed wheat and encouraged me to try some.
"It tastes nutty. I want more," he said, surprising us both. I made a mental note to capitalize on the experience and buy the nuttiest twelve-grain bread I can find.
Strike while the iron is hot, as the blacksmith says.
Farming is a tough life, so it's foolish to wax too poetic on the subject, but for this mom, the shift our society has made, away from a lifestyle where everyone engaged in physical activity - often out of doors - tending to animals and digging in the dirt, performing what often amounted to meditative (albeit tedious) tasks, comes at a price. There was no need to join a gym, back in the day, for one thing.
And the kids were never bored.
(Note: This first appeared in the July 4th issue of The Kane County Chronicle (kcchronicle.com), in my column "Tales from the Motherhood.")
Jennifer DuBose, M.S., C.A.S., is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Batavia.
See more of Jennifer's stories here.